Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Egypt, Nubians Demanding Return of their Land on Trial for Illegal Protest

Egypt- Nubians
An Egyptian Nubian navigates a felucca on the river Nile in Aswan. Photo AFP

In March 2018, 32 Nubian activists are awaiting the verdict of a State Security Emergency Court, in a case that has its roots in the displacement of Nubian villagers in the 1960s to make way for Lake Nasser.

The activists are charged with illegal protesting, disrupting the peace, chanting against the state and harming public interests during a demonstration in September 2017, and could face up to five years in prison. “We protested to ask the government to give our land back, according to the constitution,” Muhammad Azmy, one of the activists on trial, told Fanack Chronicle.

The Nubians are an indigenous people who traditionally inhabit the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan and southern Egypt, with a history that dates back to pharaonic times.

With the start of the filling of the reservoir of Aswan High Dam in 1964, during the presidency of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, 44 Nubian villages were flooded. Nasser promised the Nubians new land, between Aswan and the border with Sudan to the west of the reservoir. This promise has never been fulfilled; Nasser himself designated that area for his Toskha project, an ambitious agriculture development plan that has not achieved its touted results.

Instead, around 50,000 Nubians were displaced to villages north of the dam, on the west bank of the Nile near Kom Ombo and Aswan: a narrow strip of land with limited space for agriculture. Ever since, the Nubians have demanded the return of their lands, as Nasser promised, at times by means of protest.

In September 2017, Nubian activists staged a protest in Aswan. Police dispersed them and several dozen were arrested. “It was a peaceful event in a public park, with a small turnout,” human rights lawyer Ragia Omran told Fanack Chronicle. As a member of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights, an official government body, she is closely following the case. Subsequent protests against the arrest of the activists were also dispersed, and several arbitrary arrests made.

The case took a new turn in November 2017 when one of the detainees, prominent Nubian activist Gamal Sorour, died in prison due to suspected medical neglect. “They were being held in a central security camp in Aswan, not a regular prison,” Omran said. Sorour suffered from diabetes and was in need of medical care that was not immediately available in the camp, she added. Following Sorour’s death, people took to the streets once more, and soon after, the detainees were all released pending trial.

Since 2014, the Nubians have had a powerful new tool on their side. Under pressure from activists and politicians, the 2014 constitution granted Nubians the return of their lands. According to Article 236, ‘The state works on developing and implementing projects to bring back the residents of Nubia to their original areas and develop them within 10 years in the manner organized by law.’

However, concrete action has yet to be taken. Moreover, parts of the lands claimed by the Nubians have been designated as a military zone by presidential decree and others have been put up for sale to international investors. In November 2016, Nubian activists staged a sit-in on the Aswan-Abu Simbel road, preventing one such sale from going through.

Conversations with Nubians in the villages west of Aswan reveal mixed reactions. “Once the government takes land, it will never give it back,” tourist guide Shasli told Fanack Chronicle. Hussein, an owner of a local cleaning company who was displaced himself as a small boy, believes protesting is not a good way to claim the Nubians’ rights. “We have to reach a solution with our minds, with dialogue, not by stirring up unrest,” he said. “After all, we have the constitution on our side.”

This will likely be of little comfort to the 32 activists awaiting the verdict of the State Security Emergency Court. These courts were established in October 2017, under the state of emergency that was imposed in April 2017 after 45 people were killed in attacks on churches and has been in force ever since.

State Security Emergency Courts have jurisdiction over cases involving protests, strikes and assembly, terrorism and possession of arms. “Verdicts in these courts cannot be appealed,” Omran said. “They are final upon ratification by the president.”

Yet Omran remains hopeful that the Nubians in the case will be acquitted. The judge did not request their presence in the courtroom, which is “a good indication”, she said. In addition, with presidential elections coming up in late March 2018, the authorities may be eager not to incite more unrest among the Nubian community. However, even if this group is cleared of charges, the Nubian question remains “up in the air”, Omran said.

Local press reported in February 2018 that a committee formed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had finished an account of Nubian families that qualify for compensation, but the number of families and the form of compensation remain unclear.

“They will not return anything,” said activist Muhammad Azmy. “I don’t know how to continue [protesting] in this situation.” The only other option would be international arbitration, he believes. “We could submit a complaint to the African Union or United Nations.”

Omran is cautious about the chances of taking the case to international courts. All national judicial means must have been exhausted before the African Union court could take up the case, she said.

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